Black Panther is storming through the box office and has already established itself as one of the most successful Marvel Cinematic Universe films a mere two weeks after its release. But behind every successful film is a successful marketing campaign that brought excitement to the fans.
I had the opportunity to interview Asad Ayaz, EVP and Head of Marketing for Disney Live Action, Marvel Studios, and Lucasfilm. We spoke about the core objective of the Black Panther marketing campaign, leveraging the Disney-ABC vertical for integrations and the new wave of diverse heroes in the MCU. Read our marketing nerd session below!
Joi Childs: First off, congratulations! Black Panther had a historic 4-day opening. Over the 3-day weekend, you guys opened to over $200 million, the first MCU film in six years to do so, the last one being Avengers in 2012. Both your teams must be really excited about the box office numbers. We’re moving into A Wrinkle in Time ‘s press tour, but have you had a chance to just take a second and just celebrate how well Black Panther is doing?
Asad Ayaz: It’s beyond our wildest dreams, these numbers. We’re so excited and so thrilled for the filmmakers, the talent, and tight team behind this movie.
But we do have a slew of big movies coming, so our team is obviously full-speed working on A Wrinkle In Time right now and also Avengers: Infinity War, Solo: A Star Wars Story, so all these films are coming up. So we haven’t had a ton of time to celebrate. I wish we could celebrate more.
However, we did have a really nice celebration here in the Disney offices in the marketing area. Our President of Marketing for Walt Disney Studios, Ricky Strauss, hosted a celebration for the entire department and had Kevin Feige and Louis D’Esposito, who are the President and Co-President of Marvel Studios and Alan Bergman (President, Walt Disney Studios) there.
And then Ryan Coogler (director, Black Panther), who our team loves a lot, showed up as a surprise and said some really nice words to the marketing team. And I’m sure you know Ryan or have heard him speak, but he’s such a genuinely amazing person. I think it was a perfect way to kind of cap this weekend by having him come talk to everybody and just he’s so humble and so thankful to the marketing team and so kind.
JC: Speaking of the marketing department, let’s get into the marketing of this film a bit because historically consumers have viewed marketing as a trailer or a commercial. Today, marketing is like a tree (like Groot!): able to sprout many limbs as long as its core objective is stable. When drafting your overall marketing campaign what was the core objective you were trying to achieve?
AA: I’d say the core objective that we were trying to achieve with this marketing campaign was to set up Black Panther as a kind of a cultural event. This is a tentpole, big blockbuster movie for us, and we wanted it to feel in its marketing as the broadest possible movie event for everybody. And that means the Marvel Studios fan base, obviously super-serving Black moviegoers in a big way on this marketing campaign, but also Hispanic moviegoers. We knew we had some of the most awesome multi-dimensional female characters we’ve ever had in a [MCU] movie.
So every single demographic for us was really, really important. And having this movie feel like a giant cultural event that we were basically taking over pop culture with the marketing of this movie — that was the underlying objective of the campaign.
JC: Talking about those extensions/limbs of the marketing, one of the things that I loved during the campaign was the featurettes that you guys are known for, where you do a lot of deep diving into the crew behind the scenes. For this film, in particular, there was a call to action from the fans to celebrate the Black talent behind the camera as well as in front of the camera like Ruth Carter, Hannah Beachler, etc. How did you juggle those featurettes in your marketing timeline to make sure that you had a decent mix of cast content but also crew content?
— Marvel Studios (@MarvelStudios) February 13, 2018
AA: The strategy of this movie was different and I’m glad you noticed that, because given not just the level of talent, but the work they had done was so fantastic and so helpful for us before release. Our publicity team, and certainly [those] in digital and our special content, like our featurettes, really wanted to showcase that talent.
[Costume designer] Ruth E. Carter, her work was so fantastic and the artistry in her costume work was so incredible. But even Rachel Morrison our cinematographer, she was somebody that we felt was really important for the marketing of this movie. Hannah Bleacher, who did production design and Ludwig Goranson, who’s our composer, did a beautiful score on this movie which we wanted to use. We obviously had all the other music that we were using in marketing and publicity and advertising, but the score was gorgeous. Jeffrey Bowman was the effects supervisor, Joe Cole was our screenwriter.
Our publicity team made sure that they were featured, they participated in our global press junket, they were profiled in all kinds of outlets like Wired and Hollywood Reporter and American Cinematographer, and this was all pre-release. So it was important for us to showcase kind of the craftsmanship, the artistry, and the caliber of talent that was involved with this movie behind the camera before we opened. It worked really beautifully for us, like you said. I think we were able to create some content that really showcased their work.
JC: You mentioned earlier about Black Panther having cultural relevancy. For Black consumers and fans, it’s not enough that the film has a Black cast—its lead-up and output has to be one that positively does it for the culture. That lead-up also includes press outlets that reflect and look like the cast that we have for this particular film. Can you speak to your work in collaboration with the PR team and how you comprised your lists of press for not only the premiere, but also for the advance screenings where there were Black writers and Black journalists covering this film?
AA: This was something that was very important to our publicity team and something we were very proactive about early on, to make sure that in everything we did on this campaign—especially the publicity campaign—that we were as broad and open and inclusive as possible. [We wanted to] make sure that all kinds of press, whether it was national press, local, regional press, certainly online press, people were reaching out to us directly. But we felt given what Black Panther is as a property, the talent, in front of the camera, behind the camera and the pride that there was for this movie, that we were very, very broad with our access.
And that was something that happened throughout the process. And I’m really glad you saw that and you noticed that, because oftentimes when we have these big movies we tend to work with outlets that have the biggest reach. But on this one, it was important—whether it was a screening of the movie or press events—that we were making it available and opening it up to the people who were the most passionate about it. So that was something we talked about very early on as a team.
JC: Continuing on with having films and content for the culture…culture is something that’s not forced, it doesn’t try too hard, it should be something that’s organic and meaningful to the people that it surrounds. Marvel is able to leverage being owned by Disney-ABC by doing seamless integrations with other Disney-ABC properties, whether it’d be with ESPN, Freeform, etc.
Yara Shahidi, for example, starring on a show on Freeform (Grown-ish) interviewing the cast of Black Panther is a good example of that seamless integration. When you have so many divisions you can choose to partner with, what’s your process in choosing the right division and brand for the right movie, especially for a movie such as this?
— grown-ish (@grownish) February 15, 2018
AA: We were really excited to work with Yara. I think it’s a couple of different things, and our process is basically to think about all of the different types of audiences that we want to be excited about this movie and the marketing of them, and bring them in through the marketing of the movie. But also you use the word organic. It’s very true, it can’t feel forced, it has to feel natural and it has to make sense creatively for the film.
This movie was so awesome and we wanted to make sure that anything we did with outside talent felt organic to the film. So, in the campaign, sports were a big part of it. We started the campaign with the College Football Playoff National Championship and we had some halftime integration that was in partnership with ESPN. It had a music component, it creatively made sense for the movie. We launched a new trailer there and had ticketing launch with that back in January.
We had an ESPN integration with the NBA All-Star DeAndre Jordan. Kenny Mayne (ESPN journalist) was in that too, we integrated them into the [film’s] car chase scene.
— ESPN (@espn) February 15, 2018
We had Yara and we paired her up with Letitia Wright, Chadwick Boseman, and Michael B. Jordan, and had her interview them. And she was so excited about the movie. That’s another thing that really helps when you have outside talent that’s excited and passionate about your property.
We even did something with the Real Housewives of New Jersey, we put them in the casino sequence [in the film]. They saw T’Challa walk in with Nakia and Okoye into the casino and they were like acting like they’d seen major celebrities. It creatively made sense.
We wanted to make sure that we were in all of the places where we could celebrate Black Panther, but also use outside talent and the fans of that talent to bring people in [in] a way that felt natural and organic. So that is very important to us, and I’m glad you saw that, because we were really blessed that we had a movie that a lot of celebrities and external talent wanted to be involved with.
JC: Last question: Black Panther is our first Black lead and, more broadly, our first lead of color in the MCU. For me, it’s been very exciting as a Black woman and as a Black writer to see a new class of diverse heroes that have been making their entrances as we approach Phase Four of the MCU. Heroes like Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, the Dora Milaje and Shuri in this film, etc. Post-Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers 4, how have you elevated your marketing plans to highlight the amount of diversity that’s ramping up on screen as well?
AA: The thing that we’re blessed with working on these Marvel Studios movies is that a lot of these characters, diverse characters, [and] female characters, are also some of the coolest characters in these films. I think Valkyrie is a really good example. When we saw an early cut of Thor: Ragnarok, she was kind of a standout character the marketing team loved.
And we made sure in the marketing for Thor: Ragnarok—hopefully you saw our materials—that she was a key member of that team, the Revengers, and that “Revenger” line from her in the film was so good and done so well. So showing her, showing how strong she was, was important for every single audience.
And the Dora Milaje in Black Panther is another great example of that. Okoye is such a cool character. She’s immediately iconic. So again, the marketing team benefits from the fact that so many of these characters that represent diversity are also the coolest characters in the movie and it is, therefore, our front and center [focus] in how we market the movies.
So you saw for Black Panther, it is the Black Panther’s story and his first movie, but the ensemble cast is incredible. So they were showcased, you saw [the Black female] character posters are one sheet. We really made sure that Nakia, Shuri, Okoye, were really front and center in the marketing as well. So, absolutely, it’s important that in our marketing plans we’re putting these characters front and center. And you will see more of that moving forward.
Black Panther is in theaters now.